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Unions may relent on TAFE nursing degrees: Kearney

Union opposition to TAFE-delivered nursing degrees appears likely to soften, writes John Ross.

The union movement could soon change its opposition to TAFE provision of nursing degrees, according to Ged Kearney in her new role as Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president.

As federal secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) from April 2008 until she joined ACTU two months ago, Kearney fiercely opposed the federal government’s April 2009 decision to grant Commonwealth-supported nursing places to the Victorian TAFE institute Holmesglen.

She outlined her reasons at last month’s Skills Australia conference. “We fought very hard for nursing to become a discipline in its own right, backed by rigorous evidence-based research and taught in universities with all the rigour that goes with that,” she told the Sydney conference.

“We were concerned that the TAFE sector would be separating nursing out – that there would not be any collegiate learning with other health disciplines such as medicine and physio, which we think is incredibly important.

“We were also concerned about the difference in academic rigour that exists at the TAFE level, as opposed to the university level. And the self-accrediting process that universities need to go through, that TAFEs are not subject to.

“Our concerns around those two things still exist – well, I’m sure nursing’s concerns still exist around that question.”

But Kearney told the conference she was merely delivering the “party line” as the former ANF chief. “We have had many discussions with the government since then, and I believe there probably is going to be movement in that area,” she said.

When Julia Gillard was education minister, her office gave assurances that “rigorous requirements in the education reform proposals will actually come about and be in place eventually for the TAFE sector”, Kearney said.

“Once that happens, the profession might review their stand.”

Nursing has emerged as the pivot of a broader issue around TAFE delivery of higher education.

Many commentators believe that the Bradley higher education targets can’t be achieved without provision by TAFEs and private providers – especially in areas like nursing, a national priority area where universities can’t meet current needs for graduates. Australia imports around 6000 nurses a year as skilled migrants.

While many commentators say TAFEs should be able to offer Commonwealth-supported places in their higher education courses, so far only Holmesglen’s nursing degree has gained approval. And the approval will be revoked from 2012, under the current plans for a demand-driven funding system for higher education, with only universities and the Northern Territory’s Batchelor Institute set to qualify for Commonwealth-supported places.

Bruce Mackenzie, Holmesglen CEO, disputed the grounds Kearney had given for opposing Holmesglen’s nursing degree, saying ‘collegiate learning’ wasn’t available to nursing students at many universities.

“Some of the biggest nurse educators in Australia only offer nursing – there’s no multi-disciplinary health science access at all,” he said.

Mackenzie also dismissed Kearney’s concerns around TAFEs’ academic rigour. “We go through exactly the same AUQA [Australian Universities Quality Agency] quality approval. It’s exactly the same process that universities have to undertake.”

Mackenzie said people in influential positions had “a responsibility to properly inform themselves before they start running down public infrastructure, such as TAFE institutions”.

“It’s just an elitist view of tertiary education in Australia. It’s not even a contemporary view of tertiary education.

“We’re talking about tertiary education now. Tertiary education means higher education and diplomas, not just university degrees. A different style of institution is emerging, with a focus on applied education.”

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